Forum Takes Deep Dive Into 'Unintended Consequences' Of Chatham's Popularity

By: Debra Lawless

Large crowds during shoulder season festivals were one of the topics discussed during Saturday's forum on the “unintended consequences” of Chatham's popularity. FILE PHOTO

Cars are at a standstill on Route 28 from the traffic light at Crowell Road all the way to West Chatham.

No parking spaces are available on Main Street.

Oversized tour buses hog the narrow roads.

Day-trippers have no manners.

These are some of the complaints about tourist-season Chatham heard Saturday during a forum called “Chatham in the 21st Century: How Does the Town Cope with the ‘Unintended Consequences of Popularity?’” sponsored by the Chatham Alliance for Preservation and Conservation.

The forum’s topic was sparked by an October 2017 editorial published in The Chronicle. Editor Tim Wood, who moderated the forum, noted that during the fall “it used to be a breeze to go downtown.” But during Oktoberfest downtown felt like the Fourth of July—it was that crowded. Wood noted that the downsides of popularity are help wanted signs, traffic and the price of real estate while the upsides are low taxes, healthy businesses, good schools and, yes, the price of real estate.

While the five panelists and audience members aired their concerns during the 90-minute forum, few solutions were proposed beyond possibly banning tour buses, limiting the amount of time people can park along Main Street, creating additional historic districts and, basically, learning to live with or sidestep the inconveniences of 12 summer weeks plus the shoulder seasons.

Wood asked the five panelists, all Chatham residents, what they found to be the most significant unintended consequences of the town’s popularity, and if can they live with it.

“People say ‘you must love the off-season and despise the season,’” said Jack Farrell, a real estate agent with Kinlin Grover. “I say ‘no, I love the summer.’” Farrell moved to Chatham in 1975 after working at Pate’s Restaurant as a student. “I can make accommodations for the summer visitors.” He noted that since the mid-1970s the season has been extended and that restaurants that used to close on Columbus Day weekend now remain open until Jan. 15.

Deborah Ecker, who has a background in economics, offered a different perspective.

“I’m increasingly angry about promoting tourism,” she said. She dated the increase in tourists to 1987, the year of the break in the barrier beach that caused houses to tumble into the water just north of Chatham Light. She said the resulting publicity in the Boston news, combined with the Chatham Chamber of Commerce’s efforts to promote the town, were very successful in drawing tourists.

“I can’t even go to the library in the middle of the summer,” she said. “There’s something wrong here.”

Bill Litchfield, a lawyer and for 30 years the town moderator, said the town has had traffic and parking problems since just after World War II. Yet he added that Chatham used to be a town of second home owners and has “not always had the influx of tourists.” He noted that the wastewater plant had to be built for the maximum usage of July and August rather than for the 6,000 year-round residents, a population that hasn't altered much in decades.

Speaking of the traffic, author John Whelan, whose family has lived in town since Chatham Bars Inn was built in 1914, said, “It’s the weekends and I think it’s bearable.” Later he added he is offended by tour buses blocking traffic at the Chatham Light overlook. He does not believe tour bus passengers spend money in town.

“The lighthouse is a nightmare from April to September,” Karen Murdoch agreed. Murdoch moved to Chatham in 2000 and founded Women of Fishing Families (WOFF). She and her husband, a gillnetter and shellfisherman, are raising their daughter in Chatham. “People come in and lose their manners,” she said of the tourists. “We’re just trying to do what they do every day. That’s my biggest gripe.”

The congested intersection of Crowell Road and Route 28 came under fire more than once. Proposed solutions such as a rotary so far have been deemed worse than what they purport to cure. Wood described the initial proposal as an “almost urban” intersection. Should the town’s roads be enlarged to fit Chatham’s traffic or “do we keep it scaled back to a more rural, Cape Cod feel?” he asked.

Whelan said he does not believe an “urban” intersection should be created at Crowell Road and Route 28. “If it backs up, that’s the way it is here in Chatham. We really need to retain our small-town nature.” Whelan, who is clerk of the Chatham Finance Committee, said, “at times Chatham has delusions of grandeur.” He noted that initial plans for town buildings such as the new council on aging building are always larger than they need be.

Litchfield said the town does not need any additional large municipal buildings and that the results of town planning have been “miserable.” In an unusually candid comment, he said the town has suffered from a lack of leadership.

Farrell raised the issue of smaller houses being torn down to make way for larger ones. Shore Road, he said has “lost its charm, I’m afraid, because of the scale and the mass of everything going on there.”

The forum ended with 20 minutes of audience questions that ranged over discussions of the possible unintended growth that might be caused by town-wide sewers, the challenges caused by a lack of affordable housing for Chatham’s service workers and young families, and what day trippers do or do not add to the local economy.

The Alliance is made up of 15 non-profit organizations and is in its 25th year. The group promotes and advocates for preservation and conservation to sustain Chatham’s historic, natural and cultural resources.